After legendary stories of ballooning costs, technical issues and the fact that someone spiked the catering with LSD, movie pundits back in 1997 famously predicted with smug satisfaction that James Cameron’s mega-epic would simply sink without a trace at the box office – but if the barnstorming release of Titanic taught us anything, it’s this. Never. Count. Out. James. Cameron.
Of course, after multiple Oscars (11 of the bastards) and a stint at the top of the mountain for “highest grossing movie ever”, it’s a lesson we enthusiastically debated, until Cameron gave us a sobering reminder with Avatar, but after all these years, now that the effects are passe and that fucking theme song isn’t belted out so much at weddings and hen parties, does Titanic still hold water… so to speak?
It’s 1912 and 17 year old Rose boards the gargantuan sea liner Titanic with a sense of trepidation as she is due to reluctantly wed the unfathomably caddish and offensively rich Caledon Hockley under orders of her mother in order to save her family’s ailing fortunes. Elsewhere, rogueish, poor artist, Jack Dawson, wins a couple of tickets for the trip in a poker game and finds his charming ass on the way back home to America, but a chance meeting between the two – Jack stumbles upon Rose awkwardly contemplating suicide about her miserable predicament – starts off a connection that soon blows up into a full blown romance as the two star crossed young lovers introduce each other into their worlds. Jack, slapped into a tux and invited to the upper class decks as thanks for saving Rose’s life finds all the opulence and double edged compliments as hollow as Rose does, but when he sneaks her below decks into the poor section, Rose is enthralled by this world of drunk Irishmen and social freedom to be your true self.
However, Cal may be an unconscionable prick, but he still has eyes and its pretty obvious that something’s brewing between the two lovebirds, so cooking up a plan with his stoney-faced man servant, he arranges for a priceless jewel known as the Heart Of The Ocean to be planted on Jack in order to get him out of the way.
Of course, all this is rendered a fairly moot point the moment the Titanic side swipes that fateful iceberg and suddenly the clock is ticking. With the hour or two that the Titanic has before it takes it’s unplanned detour to Davey Jones’ Locker, the 2,240 people on board realise that they all better make a quick exit despite there not being enough life boats by half and in amongst the rising panic (not to mention seawater), both Jack and Rose struggle to tear their love free from Cal’s clutches.
Meanwhile, in 1996, a team searching the wreck of the Titanic for the Heart Of The Ocean get a first hand accout of what happened by someone who claims to be a survivor. A someone named Rose.
So much has been said about James Cameron’s Titanic these days I’m genuinely unsure of where to start, but I will say that even though I still yearn for the days when Cameron made “tighter” movies like The Terminator and Aliens, I’d also have to say that jokey discussions about the historical accuracy of DiCaprio’s hairdo, the relentless usage of Celine Dion and whether or not both Jack and Rose could both fit on that fucking door are sort of missing the point. You see, with Titanic (and by further extension, Avatar) we got a more emotional version of the director who was willing to twin his peerless technical and directorial expertise with something more open and heartfelt – yes, the film may have contained a sequence where the ship sinks for around a hour of screen time, but never once does Titanic feel primarily like a distaster flick and remains an unabashed romance movie from beginning to end. For those of you rolling your eyes at the thought of the man who pitted Sigourney Weaver in a giant, clanking Power Loader against a hissing Alien Queen going all gooey, it pays to remember that, in essence, The first Terminator had a fairly robust sense of romance as the doomed (and painfully short) pairing of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese isn’t that far removed from Rose and Jack – wait, does that make the iceberg the T-800?
Anyway, to reiterate, back in 1996 I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about one of Hollywood’s greatest action/sci-fi directors making a period romance either (I was 20, give me a break), but even I have to concede that Cameron did good, even if some of his storytelling devices are both a little obvious and basic. The insanely savvy casting of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in order to fall foul of clashing class structures give off crazy Romeo and Juliet vibes, the movie gives us a wildly overacting Billy Zane to root against even though the imminent (actual) deaths of over 1,500 people should be an adequate threat, hell, Cameron even has the film narrated, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, but if his script seems a little too on the nose and naive at times, his technical execution remains as sharp as ever.
Only Cameron would ever think to shoot on location at the real Titanic, rusting quietly two miles below the ocean’s surface and the devotion he displays while recreating every aspect of the titular ship, exactly both in sets and in the rapidly expanding digital realm is near fanatical. The CGI parts still hold up pretty well too, although some of the people in the long, daytime shots now look like they walk like Gerry Anderson puppets – but when the ship finally starts to sink, the director shifts into fifth gear a shows us that despite all the soppy instances of nude portraits and spitting lessons, he hadn’t lost a step.
A tour de force of blending plot in with a hugely extended action sequence while sacrificing neither, Cameron ramps up the tension slowly, matching the slow, dawning realisation of the majority of the passengers. Genuine thills weave in and out of legitimately tragic imagery as the movie juggles it’s central romance with a spot of action adventure and some genuine poignancy in a way that few filmmakers can, steamrollering you with a sobbing elderly couple choosing to remain below decks, that band that plays on the deck or the honourable fate of the captain, while simultaneously having our leads fleeing a gun waving villain who might as well ought to have a twirlable moustache. By the time the ship is suddenly lifting its rear out of the water while screaming victims make a loud donging sound as they bounce off the propellers, you’re admittedly all in as everything has merged to make you utterly invested with what happens next. Say what you will about how the filmmaker writes a romance, the dude knows what an audience wants.
So, for those who still doubt Cameron’s skills, that kind of cinematic alchemy simply doesn’t happen by accident (11 Oscars and highest grossing movie? C’mon!) and while I’ll freely admit Titanic isn’t the first movie I’d pick up if I wanted to watch and example of the director’s work – I can assure you it’s more of a matter of personal taste than a diss of the quality of the man’s talents.